Writing Posts

“The Line Tender” by Kate Allen

This is an extraordinary novel. Beautifully told by debut writer Kate Allen. It is about a young girl Lucy whose mother was a marine scientist specialising in the study of the Great White Shark. They live in Cape Cod where sightings of the sharks have been spotted and Helen had anticipated their arrival in a few years time as the local seal population grew. Unfortunately Lucy’s mum, Helen, passed away unexpectedly when Lucy was a seven years old. Her father, a rescue diver for the police, brought up Lucy with the support of his kind and warmhearted neighbours. Lucy is particularly close to her neighbour Maggie’s son, Fred. The youngsters did everything together including spending every moment of their waking hour in each other’s company. They also worked on a school projects together like the field guide on sharks that involved Lucy drawing and Fred providing the scientific explanations. Sadly, tragedy strikes. It devastates Lucy for whom it is a double blow. “The Line Tender” is an extraordinary glimpse into the world of adolescents as well as how adults around them help form a community and provide support whether in times of sadness, learning or navigating their way through the beauty this world can provide. It is not an us vs them kind of yalit but calm look at how everyone is managing their griefs too and they can reach out to each other for support. It is a way of looking outwards and the manner in which it helps heal Lucy. Read it.

29 October 2019

An extract from “Indian Genre Fiction”

Indian Genre Fiction: Pasts and Present Futures (eds. Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, Aakriti Mandhwani and Anwesha Maity) is a fascinating collection of essays. There are articles on popular fiction in late colonial Tamil Nadu, to novels of Urdu, 19th-century Bengali chapbooks, science fantasy of Leela Majumdar and Sukumar Ray, Hindi pulp literature, retelling of the Mahabharata in Krishna Udaysankar’s The Aryavarta Chronicles and Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva. But the essay that I read and re-read was Ira Pande’s tremendous “Hearts and homes: A perspective on women writers in Hindi”. Being the daughter of the very popular Hindi writer Shivani and a fluent speaker in English and Hindi, Ira Pande shares her fascinating perspective on inhabiting the Hindi literary world and what it means being bilingual.

With the permission of the publishers, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, here are two extracts from this brilliant essay. (pps. 94-95 and 96-97)

Allahabad in the ’60s was home to some of the greatest writers of those times. Harivansh Rai Bachchan had left Allahabad for Delhi by then, but there were other more famous chhayavad poets still around (Sumitranandan Pant, Mahadevi Verma and Nirala), Firaq Gorakh-puri, Amrit and Sripat Rai (Premchand’s sons, both writers and publishers), Ilachandra Joshi, VDN Sahi and Usha Priyamvada, to name just a few. And of course, there was Shivani. However, along with others of her tribe, such as Salma Siddiqi and Mannu Bhandari, her kind of writing was passed off as romantic fluff or domestic sagas that housewives ordered by mail as part of a gharelu (domestic) library scheme. The very popularity of these women writers became a weapon to use against their literary output. To the supercilious self-styled critics who pronounced judgment on what was to be considered accept-able as literature, this space was only meant for those who wrote for a different audience, one that had a sophisticated palate developed on the ‘modern’ fare of European and contemporary American fiction. Certain subjects were taboo in this high-minded world: romance and bourgeois lives headed this list.

Somewhere by the ’70s, then, the small town became an object of ridicule: it was valourised in romantic literature and cinema but actually hated and mocked at in the real. Small wonder then, that its inhabitants (who suffered from a crippling form of low self-esteem since birth) ran into hiding and tried to ape the big-city culture by writing, speaking and dressing like the metropolitan sophisticates they yearned to become. When this happened, the country lost all those delightful rivulets that fed the creative river of the Grand National Dream. The homogenisation of culture took over: slogans replaced feelings. The joy went out of fun as its definition changed into something wrought by high-minded nationalist agendas. Political correctness has a lot to answer for.

Upon reflection, it appears to me that Shivani’s most prolific literary output and some of her most memorable and popular novels date to the years when Hindi magazines were avidly read across North India. Among these, Dharmyug (edited then by the formidable Dharmvir Bharati, a widely respected novelist and dramatist) occupied pride of place. Published by Bennett and Coleman (referred to henceforth as B&C), its owners (Sahu Jain and Rama Jain) promoted creative writing and later endowed the Gyanpeeth Award, the first privately endowed prestigious literary award for writers in various Indian languages. The Bennett and Coleman Group (later known as the Times of India group) also brought out a clutch of other magazines. Among these were Sarika (contemporary Hindi writing, edited by Kamleshwar) and Dinaman (a political and economic weekly, edited by Agyeya), both respected for their content and editorial gravitas. Filmfare, a film magazine, and the Illustrated Weekly of India were their popular English-language publications. The Hindustan Times group, owned by the Birlas, published Saptahik Hindustan (as a rival to Dharmyug), Kadambari (as an alternative to Sarika) and vied with each otherto publish serials by the most popular Hindi writers of those days. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, there was not a single library or reader in North India that did not subscribe to these magazines.

Almost all of Shivani’s novels – certainly her most popular ones – were first published as serials in one or the other magazines mentioned above. Her most well-known novel, Krishnakali, published as a serial in Dharmyug in the ’60s, was later published as a novel by Gyanpeeth (the publishing house run by the B&C group). In addition to these magazines, two others (Navneet and Gyanoday) I can recall from then were modelled on the popular American publication, Reader’s Digest. Shivani’s travelogues, essays and memorial tributes were regularly published in these Hindi digests.

….

Naturally, the serialised novel had its own effect on the writing it spawned. Fans wrote furious letters to Shivani when she betrayed their hopes (such as by killing off a character) or when she did not spend enough time on a particular strand of the narrative. This close bond between writer and reader was perhaps what contributed to the intimacy that readers developed over the years with their favourite writers. My sister Mrinal Pande (who edited Saptahik Hindustan in the ’90s) recalls how typists vied with each other to type out Shivani’s (always) handwritten manuscript when she sent in a fresh instalment so that he/she would be the first to read it! The circulation of magazines jumped by as much as 55 per cent when her novels were being serialised and siblings fought with each other to grab the magazine to read it first when it was delivered to private homes. Often they tore the pages out so that they could share it among themselves.

What gave this genre its enormous reach and popularity was that these stories were significant documentaries. I would say that that it was reality fiction based on real-life characters and episodes and invisible to the writers based in our up-and-coming metros who consciously distanced themselves from these provincial lives to become more acceptable to a wider, international literary world. This is a fact often overlooked when tracing the evolution of Hindi writing. As Vasudha Dalmia’s book on fiction and history reveals, novels located in Allahabad, Agra, Aligarh, Banaras or Lucknow give us an insight into the social landscapes that were shaping middle-class lives in the ’50s and ’60s.2 Beneath the romantic tales of young women and men were rich subplots that reveal the gradual breakup of orthodox joint families, the effect of education on the emancipation of women in provincial India and the effect of migration from small towns to industrial cities. The language of everyday conversation in middle-class homes and amongst families, the social terms of exchange between men and women, workers and employers are important markers of a world we seek today and cannot find because it no longer exists. What are often dismissed as kitchen tales and romantic fiction stood firm on a foundation because it was supported by religion and ritual, food and taboos, folk remedies and aphorisms that nourished clans and villages. In the tightly packed houses of our old shahars that were separated by narrow lanes, the smells and sounds that travelled across neighbours became rich lodes of narratives that had the authenticity of real lives. The bonds between Hindu and Muslim homes, or between upper- and lower-caste settlements were strong threads that wove the fabric of our social communities. A deep suspicion of the other community was balanced by an equally strong love for individual men and women. Look for these common narrative strains and you will find them in all writers who lived and thrived in little India.

3 Feb 2019

Louise Erdrich “The Blue Jay’s Dance”

Novelist Louise Erdrich’s The Blue Jay’s Dance about balancing life as a mother and a writer is a fascinating account. It was written in the mid-nineties but is ever so relevant decades later. There was a lovely essay written in the The Paris Review by Sarah Mekendick on revisiting The Blue Jay’s Dance. It was published on 10 May 2017. It is a book certainly worth reading by many especially new mothers.

There are many passages that are beautifully written encapsulating the new life women professionals find themselves plunged into with the birth of a child. Two really stand out. These are:

To keep the door to the other self — the writing self — open, I scratch messages on the enevelopes of letters I can’t answer, in the margins of books I’m too tired to review. On pharmacy prescription bags, dime-store notebooks, children’s construction paper, I keep writing. 

(p.5)

and the second is:

Most of the instruction given to pregnant women is as chirpy and condescening as the usual run of maternity clothes — the wide tops with droopy bows slung beneath the neck, the T-shirts with arrows pointing to what can’t be missed, the childish sailor collars, puffed sleeves, and pastels. It is cute advice — what to pack in the hospital bag (don’t forget a toothbrush, deodorant, a comb or a hair dryer) — or it’s worse: pseudo-spiritual, misleading, silly, and even cruel. In giving birth to three daughters, I have found it impossible to eliminate pain through breathing, by focusing on a soothing photograph. It is true pain one is attempting to endure in drugless labor, not “discomfort,” and the way to deal with pain is not to call it something else but to increase in strength, to prepare the will. Women are strong, strong, terribly strong. We don’t know how strong we are until we’re pushing out our babies. We are too often treated like babies having babies when we should be in training, like acolytes, novices to high priestesshood, like serious applicants for the space program. 

(p.11-12)

28 November 2018 

Indian Author Anita Nair on her New Book for Children on Stories from the Qur’an and her Role as an Independent Publisher

( My interview with Anita Nair on her new book, Muezaa and Baby Jaan , and launch of a new independent publishing press, Attic Books, was published in Bookwitty.) 

Award-winning and bestselling Indian author Anita Nair is the editorial director of the recently launched Attic Books, an independent publishing firm focused on making world literature available in English in South Asia. This new responsibility has coincided with the publication of her new book, Muezza and Baby Jaan— a beautifully illustrated (by Harshad Marathe) book for children that retells stories from the Qur’an. The succession of events that birthed this book were Anita’s research for Idris which required familiarising herself with the stories but more importantly it was the equation of terrorism with Islam, which troubled her, and she felt needed addressing. As she says passionately in her preface:

“Acts of terrorism perpetrated by Muslim fundamentalists had already made many non-Muslims wary of the religion. And I thought this was grossly unfair to Islam and what it taught. I had been brought up as a secular individual and felt a calling to clear this misinterpretation in my own way.

No religion preaches hate or violence. No religion condones killing or the taking of human life. However, flawed interpretations do lend a religion a misguided twist that it does not claim in the first place. Those with vested interests manipulate aspects of a religion to justify heinous crimes and the massacre of innocents. And so it had happened with Islam.”

Anita Nair kindly answered questions about her new book and her new job:

Indian Author Anita Nair on her New Book for Children on Stories from the Qur'an and her Role as an Independent Publisher - Image 2

You are a rare kind of writer who has the ability to write books for children and adults. Given the current milieu why retell stories from the Qur’an in Muezza and Baby Jaan for children and not adults?

Three specific reasons why I chose to re-tell stories from the Qur’an for children and not adults are:

I am not an expert of Islam and my understanding of the scripture is at a basic level. I read the scripture for what is it and didn’t want to read sub texts hence, it occurred to me that the Qur’an as I understood it, would be more apt for a child’s reading rather than an adult seeking spiritual guidance.

Any religion is best understood when explained in the form of stories. Children are more receptive to stories rather than adults who seek complexities, twists and justifications.

If inclusiveness and tolerance need to be part of our psyche it needs to begin from childhood and I thought it important that our children learn about Islam through the stories from the Qur’an so as to accept it as another scripture that like all scriptures advocate only peace and love.

If inclusiveness and tolerance need to be part of our psyche it needs to begin from childhood…

Is there any reason why you selected these particular stories to retell?

During the course of my research I discovered the stories of the ten blessed animals and wanted to build my stories around these animals for they brought in accounts about various Prophets. Some are familiar names from the Old Testament, which furthered my cause that all religions are the same to a great extent, and also it helped me follow a certain chronology in the telling.

Today communal intolerance particularly towards Islam is on the upswing globally. Do you think by this pushback of sensitizing children to Islamic stories will help to create a secular future?

I certainly do believe sensitizing children to Islamic stories will help in creating a secular world, where a person is judged by what they do and not what religion they follow.

Why did you opt to anthropomorphize the cat and the camel to share the Qur’an stories rather than merely retell them yourself?

Apart from wanting to open up the Qur’an for general reading I wanted to bring alive Islamic lore and it seemed to me the best way to do so was by anthropomorphizing the two protagonists of the book namely Muezza the cat and Baby Jaan the camel. When they voice our thoughts, be it on friendship, prejudice, peace or trust, the characters strike a chord in our hearts and we immediately start relating to the stories on a very personal level

As a successful writer yourself you have been published worldwide but why have decided to launch a publishing house: Attic Books? Who else is on the team?

The reason I decided to start a publishing house is because we are all exposed to literary giants and Nobel laureates writing in languages other than English but we are oblivious to all other wonderful writing from around the world. Attic Books was conceived to be a small boutique-publishing house that will focus on a small number of books from spectacular authors that the Indian reader has yet to encounter. I want to bring these authors the readership they deserve.

As of now, we are working with only international fiction. But we hope to expand to international non-fiction as well and one work of translation from an Indian language. The only Indian fiction we will be publishing at this point is the anthology of short fiction drawn from my creative-writing mentorship programme in Bangalore, Anita’s Attic. The plan is to keep to the promise of what an Attic holds: Hidden treasures and surprises so as the curator of the list, I may decide to mix up fairy tales with crime with lit fiction to travel. I do hope we can acquire rights to unpublished works but given that we have no angel investors, commissioning an original translation of international fiction may be an expensive prospect.

Indian Author Anita Nair on her New Book for Children on Stories from the Qur'an and her Role as an Independent Publisher - Image 3

Our 2017 list comprises of Evald Flisar’s literary novel If I Only Had Time (Slovenia), Suchen Christian Lim’s literary romance The River’s Song (Singapore), Andres Neumann’s literary novel Talking to Ourselves (Argentina/Spain), Bei Tong’s LGBTQ novel Beijing Comrades (a translation by Scott Myers) and I. M. Batacan’s crime novel Smaller and Smaller Circles (Philippines).

I am in the process of acquiring books for 2018. There are so many good books out there but I don’t want our list to repeat themes and I have to be diligent about the list we are putting together. Attic Books is a partnership between Anita’s Attic (which is a company made of Anita Nair and a digital agency, *ConditionsApply) and Logos – a Malayalam language publisher based in Kerala.

Given the range of genres you publish in, will there be any overlaps with your plans for Attic Books?

No, I am very certain that it will not clash with my own work, which will always be housed as it always has been in publishing houses where I have a sound editor to work with. I value the role of an editor in my writing process and wouldn’t want to lose that objectivity and editorial input.

Does your personal experience of being published by others inform the business of establishing your own publishing firm?

Business-wise the decision to try and turn publisher ranks along with that of Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Nevertheless, one cannot help but admire the old knight for trying to keep alive the romanticism of a period even though it may seem delusional to everyone else. However, over the years I have drawn my own insights on what makes publishing exciting and would like to see if they are really true.

How do you find time to balance writing, mentoring and now publishing?

Honestly, I don’t have an answer to that. I guess I just don’t stop. And that what I am doing is exciting makes me put in long hours without thinking of it as a job to be done.

Is there space for another publishing firm in India?

Yes and no. Yes, if one can move away from the traditional confines of publishing. No, if one is seeking to replicate what is already there and available.

Will you focus only on print or also digital? How do you plan to distribute your books?

We will be only be focusing on print. One of our visions for Attic Books is to help people put together a library of their own at home. Books that people will read, keep, and read again and pass on hopefully to their next generation; hence, the stringent process of choosing who we publish.

Distribution will be through select bookstores and online sales. And we have created Attic Club, which is a subscription model where a reader can take an annual subscription at a fabulous price that will bring the books to their homes and will also put them on a list to the exclusive book events we will host.

25 February 2017 

On “Dying” and “In Gratitude”

jenni-diski51hmou4betl-_sx311_bo1204203200_I’m writing a memoir, a form that in my mind plays hide-and-seek with the truth. It contains what I imagine and what I remember being told. Absolute veracity is what I am after. 

Jenni Diski In Gratitude 

Two women writers, Jenni Diski and Cory Taylor, are diagnosed with cancer and its inoperable. Trying to come to terms with the doctor’s grim prognosis is not easy. Suddenly time takes on a different meaning. Jenni Diski began a column for the London Review of Books once her cancer was diagnosed. It was a series a essays that were published reflecting on her life, her birth family, her writing, her school and most significantly her complicated relationship with the Nobel Prize winner, Doris Lessing, who took fifteen-year-old Jennifer Simmonds under her wing. The Australian writer Cory Taylor too spends a while in her memoir, Dying, remembering her mother and the choices she made. In both the memoirs what comes across clearly is that the two dying writers are reflecting upon their past but are also hugely influenced by and acknowledge the presence of the women who made the writers what they are. Jenni Diski had always nursed a desire to be a writer but had not been very focused about it till she met Doris Lessing and was introduced to her world of writers and other creative minds who always made interesting conversation and had ideas to offer. Cory Taylor discovered that her mother had had a dream to be a writer but never achieved it. She writes in Dying : “Writing, even if most of the time you are only doing it in your head, shapes the world, and makes it bearable. …I’m never happier than when I’m writing, or thinking about writing, or watching the world as a writer, and it has been this way from the start.” Three Australian writers including Benjamin Law wrote a beautiful obituary for Cory Taylor in the Guardian terming Dying as a “remarkable gift” for providing a vocabulary and invitation to speak about that “unmentionable thing”, a “monstrous silence” — death. ( 6 July 2016, http://bit.ly/2dPq0Mx ) These sentiments on writing and the gift of the memoir can probably be extended to Jenni Diski and In Gratitude too.

Apart from Jenni Diski’s and Cory Taylor’s preoccupation with writing and their evolution as writers what comes 41vdphgesjlthrough strongly in both memoirs is the tussle between secular and religious modes of coping with death and its rituals. Also how ill-prepared a secular upbringing makes an individual in understanding burial rites or managing one’s grief once a loved one departs. How does one mourn? The structures of religious rituals seem to take care of the moments of sorrow. There is much to do. Yet the challenge of speaking of death and the process of dying is not easy. Cory Taylor had even contemplated euthanasia and ultimately passed away in hospice care.

In Gratitude and Dying: A memoir put the spotlight on the magnificent leaps medicine and technology have made, in many cases it has prolonged life but with it is the baggage of ethics — whether it is possible to go through the agony of pain while dying a slow death or to end it all swiftly by assisted suicide or euthanasia. These are critical issues not necessarily the focus areas of both books although Cory Taylor confesses in having contemplated euthanasia. While reading the memoirs innumerable questions inevitably arise in a reader’s mind.

Some of the literature  published recently has been seminal in contributing to the growing awareness and need to discuss death increasingly in modern times when advancement in medical technology seems to prolong human suffering. Also in an increasingly polarised world between the secular and religious domains bring to the fore the disturbed confusion that reigns in every individual on how to deal with the dying, the finality of death, disposal of the mortal remains and the despair it leaves the distraught survivors in. Some links are:

  1. “Daughters of Australian scientists who took their own lives reflect on their parents’ plan” http://bit.ly/2dDfvc8 ( Jan 2016)
  2. Amitava Kumar’s essay “Pyre” published in Granta ( https://granta.com/pyre/ ) and recently republished in Best American Essays 2016, edited by Jonathan Franzen.
  3. Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal ( 2015)
  4. Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air ( 2016)
  5. Aleksander Hemon’s moving essay on his infant daughter’s brain cancer ( “The Aquarium: A Child’s Isolating Illness” JUNE 13 & 20, 2011 ISSUE http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/06/13/the-aquarium )
  6. Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture  ( 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ji5_MqicxSo )
  7. Andrew Solomon’s essay on his mother’s decision to opt for euthanasia ( “A  Death of One’s Own” 22 May 1995 http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1995/05/22/a-death-of-ones-own )

In Gratitude and Dying are strangely comforting while being thought provoking in raising uncomfortable questions about mortality, importance of time, maintenance of familial ties and doing that which pleases or gives the individual peace. Both the memoirs have a confident writing style as if by capturing memories in words the writers are involved a therapeutic process of facing their mortality while the urgency to their writing has an unmistakable strength to its tenor as if no one will have the time to dispute their published words.

Read these books.

Jenni Diski In Gratitude Bloomsbury, London, 2016. Pb. pp. 250 £12.99 

Cory Taylor Dying: A Memoir Canongate, London, 2016. Pb. pp. £12.99 

24 Oct 2016 

 

 

‘Writing is really an interruption of reading…’  Interview with Zia Haider Rahman

‘Writing is really an interruption of reading…’ Interview with Zia Haider Rahman

On 20 July 2014, The Hindu Literary Review carried an interview I had done with Zia Haider Rahman. A shortened version was published in print, a slightly longer version on the newspaper’s website ( http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/writing-is-really-an-interruption-of-reading/article6228449.ece ) and I reproduce below the complete and unedited version of the interview that the author sent and approved. The book is available in India with Picador India, PanMacmillan India. ISBN: 9789382616245

in the light of what we know - zia haider rahmanZia Haider Rahman’s novel, In the Light of What we Know, is a forceful debut. It is about two male friends, an unnamed narrator and Zafar, who first meet as students at Oxford. The book consists of a long, meandering conversation with the men exchanging notes about their past, their careers, their families and their experiences since they last met in New York, when they were colleagues with bright futures at a financial firm. This meeting takes place in London, September 2008.

Zia was born in rural Bangladesh but migrated to the United Kingdom before his sixth birthday and was raised in a derelict squat before moving to state housing. His father was a waiter; his mother a seamstress. Zia won a scholarship to read mathematics at Balliol College, Oxford, and completed graduate studies at Cambridge, Munich and Yale universities. After working as an investment banker for Goldman Sachs on Wall Street, he turned to practising as an international financial lawyer before moving to human rights work.

1. What was the gestation period for this manuscript? How long was the first draft? How much time did it take from manuscript to printed book?

Many of the ideas and images in this novel have been percolating for rather a long time; some of the governing themes have grown out of preoccupations that have been with me for the whole of my life. I imagine this must be true of many authors and must hold for even books subsequent to their first.

The first draft was about the same in length as the final one, as I recall. Before I began revising anything, my editor made some helpful suggestions conceding that those comments might actually increase the length of the novel by ten or so per cent. In the end, I decided to make a few small cuts here and there and so the word count did not change much between the first draft and what is there now in the printed book. I find that certain writing is not improved by tinkering or revising, particularly passages or scenes of strongly emotional content: the rawness is a vital part of the energy.

From final manuscript to printed book, it took about three to four months. I made life a little difficult for myself by choosing to keep the British English version and the American English version distinct; the punctuation as well as vocabulary, of course, is different. The US version, for instance, has adopted the serial comma, which most non-American readers would find inhibitive to fluent reading.

2. How many notebooks did you maintain to create this novel or was it written directly on the computer? When and where was the research done? Does it ever cease?

As a matter of routine, I have always kept notebooks, jotting down ideas and things of interest. I used to try to keep track of them. Once I’m through a dozen or so, I sit down and take a few hours to type them up. This refreshes my memory but also allows me to discard ultimately uninteresting material. But the real reason I do it is that an electronic document is easy to search through.

While writing the novel, my note-taking activity increased hugely. I was quite itinerant at the time, so it was vital to have something to hand in which to record thoughts as they arose, if I was waiting for a train or plane, or if I woke up with a thought that I wanted to record. But when I was properly drafting any text for the novel, I did this on the computer. I type very much faster than I write long hand.

The research was done in various places. Some of it was done on the internet, although the internet is really only helpful as a starting point and also to confirm some fact or other. At one point, I used the internet to watch what felt like every US congressional hearing on the financial crisis, which was considerably more than was necessary for the novel, but I found them inherently fascinating and full of drama. The libraries I used were principally the British Library in London, the New York Public Library and the library of a small town in upstate New York, near Yaddo (a foundation for writers,  artists and composers, where I wrote most of the novel). The last library is actually plugged into the wider library system of upstate New York and has very swift access to the many books within the system. It’s quite extraordinary, actually, with large sunlit rooms and many shelves of books, as libraries used to have, and has not been overrun by technology, multimedia and so on.

It’s no doubt possible to do more research than necessary. But if the activity of research is in itself rewarding then one is not so much doing research as merely indulging oneself in the pleasure of reading.

3. Who are the authors and writing styles/ traditions that have influenced you?

Everything I read leaves something and I can no more identify my literary influences than I can point to particular meals I’ve had that have been exceptionally nourishing. Over the years, many, many books and authors have had an emotional impact on me, although whether and how they might have influenced my writing is, in most cases, harder to see. To name a few that spring to mind: Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Marquez’s Hundred Years of Solitude, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, David Adams Richards’ Mercy Among the Children, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Sebald’s Austerlitz, many of Philip Roth’s novels and Coetzee’s, James Baldwin’s, and the list goes on and on, as one might expect of any author, because writing is really an interruption of reading and vice-versa.

4. You have a lot of epigraphs in the novel but they seem to be used in an unusual way. What is their purpose?

You’re right. There is something unusual about them. Ordinarily in novels, epigraphs are evidence of the writer peeking in from behind the curtain; here, the narrator has actively included them after retrieving them—or most of them—from Zafar’s notebooks, as he himself explains. There is also the fact that near the end of the book the epigraphs of a particular chapter are the venue for a disclosure: the epigraphs actually do a job of storytelling. Described in this way here—and not encountered in the course of reading—it might seem like the assignment of epigraphs to and by the narrator is a breach of a convention of the novel. After all, epigraphs typically stand above, aside, aloof. I have no aversion to breaches of convention, provided they are effective, but I’m not sure there is a breach here in any event. All that is happening is that the narrator is laying claim to real estate on the page ordinarily owned by the author.

5. At a time when it is easy to Google for information why did you introduce extensive footnotes in the text?

As you know, the narrator himself does precisely that—go to internet search engines in order to look things up. The narrator uses footnotes where he wants to elucidate something that Zafar says, without interrupting the flow of Zafar’s account. Having said that, there are also a couple of rather long footnotes, notably one likening map projections in cartography to the translation of poetry and another relating to the war of 1971, where one has the sense that the narrator simply doesn’t want to omit something that Zafar said or wrote and yet cannot justify to himself the inclusion of the material in the main body of text. The narrator, as one quickly gathers, is to a certain degree rather unreliable: he thinks he is smarter than he actually is, he has a rather undeveloped attitude to women, and, of course, he is fundamentally compromised by a certain set of circumstances which we cannot go into without issuing a spoiler warning. The footnotes—their presence, form and the kind of material they include—are an example of what emerges from the first person perspective here. In a third person narration, they might not have emerged in a necessary way.

6. How did your training in mathematics impact your manuscript drafts and plot structure?

Mathematics is fundamental to my outlook on very many things and in ways that I cannot easily measure. In my formative years it was everything to me, the single place of beauty in my life, and of breathtaking beauty at that. I still believe that pure mathematics is the most creative thing that our species does, though I am no longer a part of the mathematical project.

The mathematical tilt remains basic to my epistemological perspective, my insistence on reasons for a claim—reasons that that are capable of yielding to interrogation. Mathematics gave me that. Other experiences might have left me with the same outlook, as I expect other things do to other people. But my debt is to mathematics. Nothing in life can be relied upon in the way that a mathematical proof can. Nothing anyone ever says or does or tastes or feels will so much as perturb the trust we have in a mathematical truth. And though elsewhere in life we cannot achieve the same conviction, the presence of this standard in one realm ought to be regarded as a beacon illuminating the dark poverty in the quality of reasoning we seem to settle for in other aspects of our lives, in the political and social especially.

I am unsure how to begin to answer your question—or even if I can—since thinking mathematically, day-in and day-out for a long time and at a formative age means that its effects are marbled into my foundations.

7. The analogy between cartography and translation is a fascinating concept on the art of representation via illustrations and word. How do you view your novel in the light of this theory?

In the novel, the narrator relates Zafar’s observations on one underlying similarity between map projections and the translation of poetry. There are many ways to represent the curved surface of the planet on a piece of paper. And there are many ways to go about translating a poem in one language into another. In cartography, for instance, you might choose to preserve relative areas or relative subtended angles. In poetry, you might choose to preserve rhyme or meter. The list of things to consider is actually quite long in both cases. Both involve choices about what to preserve and what to let go. Moreover—and this is crucial—in both cases a decision to preserve one thing limits or even destroys the freedom to preserve others. In both cases, also, the underlying need that drives the enterprise is that without either a map or a translation nothing would be knowable; after all, you cannot give someone a miniature globe with all the details of the earth’s surface along with a powerful magnifying glass and tell her to use these to navigate her journey across New York, London or Delhi, any more than you can give her a poem by a Hungarian poet along with textbooks to learn Hungarian and expect her to be moved to tears—assuming she’s not a native Hungarian speaker, of course!

The similarity of the two enterprises speaks to the pervasiveness of an underlying point: in order to gain access to the world, we undertake an activity of representing it that necessarily involves destruction. We are forced to abandon any hope of seeing some things in order to see anything at all. Zafar’s perspective is bleak, on one level, but on another it could be read as epistemic humility, an acknowledgement of one of the kinds of constraints on our perception of the world and on our access to knowledge. There are several themes in the novel but its backbone is to do with the status and nature and limits of knowledge.

8. There are so many identities that you mention in your novel whether defined by religion, nationality or language. Even within one religion there are many sub-categories such as Wahhabi and Sunni Muslims; Coptic, Arabic and Pakistani Christians, Anglicans and Catholics. Would you say that In the Light of What we Know is exploring the concept of a “global or an immigrant” novel?

I remember walking into a famous independent bookshop in New York a few years ago and discovering that under fiction they had an “Asian writers” section, as well as other ethnically or regionally defined categories. This sort of arrangement is not uncommon. But it is impossible to criticize the bookshops themselves; the industry of bricks and mortar booksellers is under enormous strain, with outlets folding by the day, not to mention whole chains of stores. Bookshops are simply responding to customer demands and preferences; in an environment in which margins are being squeezed, there is little room to do anything but organize books in a way that caters to customer tastes and maximizes sales. Some are throwing in the towel and have transformed into cafés or gift shops in all but name; if they can flog you a book on your way out, that’s a bonus.

The geographic and cultural categories into which novels are placed, often by people, other than the author, assigning her an identity, is driven by a market that has become habituated to conceiving of literature in terms of these categories. The root of the problem is a word: novel. The novel is such an expansive menagerie, holding such varied beasts, that a taxonomy is inevitable because it is useful. But the expansiveness of the idea of a novel gives rise to all manner of problems. For instance, it means that two novels might be compared that are fundamentally incommensurable. The label novel is misleading. But the publishing industry needs it in order to widen the market for every book it promotes: You like novels? Well, here’s a novel. I suspect that your question has more to do with aspects of my own particular novel. But I think that the question is related to the business of book-selling. The publishing industry is slightly schizophrenic in a certain respect. Discussions about lofty ‘literature’ rarely include matters of publishing industry realities.  I understand this—in fact, a little part of me dies when I hear talk about the art of novels and the business of publishing in the same breath. But—to bring us to your question—it seems to me that the current taxonomies are not responsive to the changing world and our changing understanding of the world. What happens twelve time zones away has as much impact on us as something happening on our doorstep. The geographic, economic, and social scope of the particular world each of us inhabits is widening, the perceptual field broadening. To return to the taxonomy analogy, even biologists have been introducing new taxonomies of living things that reflect better understandings of relationships between organisms.

9. Post-9/11 there have been a number of novels tackling the issues of identity, cultural politics, and new geo-political orientations, with literary conversations dissecting the rise of the Muslim novelists. Yet In the Light of What we Know focuses on “conflicts” happening along various fault lines—in the world of finance, within marriages or on real battlefields. The frightening truth to emerge in your story is the sense of wrongs and injustices of history being repeated over and over again, going against the popular theory of one particular community being responsible for terrorism. Please comment.

Every general election anywhere seems to mark a turning point, we’re told. Or something is a landmark event. Every military surge is a new initiative that will turn back the tide. The consumption of news would fizzle out if it did not bear the sense that what is happening is new in the sense that it is bringing in change, is going to alter the way things are. We all like to plan—we can plan like no other animal—but our ability to plan goes hand in hand with an appetite to learn what’s new, what’s news, what might affect our plans. News media feeds this appetite endlessly and would do itself out of a living if its reports ran along the lines of, say: Such and such happened today and it’s terribly similar to what happened ten years ago and also to what happened forty years ago and everybody thought then that it was going to change everything but it didn’t.

There is hubris in regarding ours as the pivotal moment in history—a shocking hubris given that every age has thought this way—but it is vital to the sale of news to maintain this pretence. To see the repeated patterns may not actually make it easier to resolve the problems we now face—after all, the most common repeated pattern is one of failure—but I have wondered whether it would lead to a feeling of familiarity, which would have a calming effect, a sense that we are not at the edge of a precipice without parallel. Of course, this is a nightmare to those who rely on us feeling frightened all the time.

10. During the Global Summit to end Sexual Violence in Conflict, London (June 2014) the birangonas stories were not shared in the official programme; a silence that was marked by protests. Whereas in your novel there are many epigraphs drawing the reader’s attention to the Bangladeshi women raped during conflict. Please comment.

What is there to say that hasn’t been said already? Tahmima Anam, the distinguished Bangladeshi novelist, has written evocatively about the plight of the Birangonas. But one finds oneself still asking: who is listening? Every aspect of the suffering that these women have been through at the hands of Pakistani soldiers and Bangladeshi collaborators is stomach-churning. But it galls me to think that after rape and violence during the war many of them returned to communities that turned their backs on them.

11.  How would you define yourself? By the country of origin or domicile or a bit of both like Zafar who is perceived as “Anglo-Bangla”?

I am often asked where I’m from—in Europe, mainly because of my skin color, and in the US, mainly because of my British accent. I know that this is the case because in the US when I say that I was born in Bangladesh, nine times out of ten, an American probes further to get an explanation of the accent. But if, instead, I tell Americans that I grew up in the UK, there seem to be no further questions. I’m explaining this because nobody ever actually asks me to define myself; the question is invariably “Where are you from?” and behind that question there is a desire to have something specific resolved—why the skin color or accent? Nor do I myself ever stand in the mirror and ask: Zia, how do you define your identity? Identity, per se, has not been an issue I have felt a need to resolve. Does a lion need to know that it is called a lion?

That said, I have long sought a sense of belonging to a place, something lacking in my psyche. The insufficiency is not without its advantages, of course. I think it keeps one a little removed from things, which is a helpful vantage from which to observe. And this slight dislocation can make for interesting personal experiences. But the cost is brutal. Human beings need roots, perhaps not all humans, but I rather suspect it is the norm to attach to a piece of land, to the ground that will one day take us back.

12. You are represented by the legendary literary agent Andrew Wylie, a dream beginning for a debut author. How did this come to pass?

I was introduced to the agency by a mutual acquaintance. I have been lucky in many ways over the years beginning with the enormous good fortune of having access to healthcare and schooling and libraries and, at least after the first few years, to a decent meal every day, all the way through to the sheer luck of living in a place where university education did not require me or my family to bring resources of our own. If humanity cared enough about fairness, then luck of this kind would have no place in determining the fate of a child.

22 July 2014 

 

 

Hanif Kureishi, “The Last Word”

Hanif Kureishi, “The Last Word”

The Last Word, Hanif Kureishi “Talent is gold dust. You can pan among a million people and come up with barely a scrap of it. Commitment to the Word stands against our contemporary fundamentalist belief in the market.”

The Last Word is the latest novel by Hanif Kureishi.  It is about an ageing and a once-upon-a-time-famous novelist, Mammon and his young biographer, Harry. Mammon is living the life of a recluse in the countryside with his second wife,Liana. He is crabbity, cantankerous and unable to rake in money as he did earlier.  According to Liana, he is an old-fashioned novelist who writes his own novels! Mammon is alarmed at the rapidity with which his resources are dwindling while his wife ploughs through it for various expenses. Harry too has his fair share of challenges but he aspires to be a great novelist. So when commissioned by the maverick and brilliant publisher, Rob to ghostwrite a biography (“official portraitist”) of Mammon, Harry grabs the opportunity to do so–he has idolised Mammon from afar, apart from needing money himself to survive. The Last Word is about the relationship and the trajectory of a fading author’s career and a bit about how a flagging career can be turned around with astute marketing.

This novel seems to be based upon on Hanif Kuerishi’s years of experience as a writer, a creative fiction professor, an award winning and acclaimed novelist, and just an ordinary human being who is trying to get on with life. At times there is a strong feeling that this novel is an well-crafted excuse to deliver his maxims about what constitutes fiction. It is at times sparkling with its insights about contemporary literature and the desire to write in so many. He bursts many many bubbles and dreams of aspiring author. He shows the feet of clay that literary figures are supposed to have. He is quite dismissive of novelists as being tricksters, deceivers, conmen…mostly a seducer. He is scathing about the “gossipocracy of agents, publishers and writers, to stock up with as many stories of infidelity, plagiarism, literary feuding and deceit, cross-dressing, backstabbing, homosexuality, and in particular, lesbianism, as he could.” Mammon even invokes Boswell, the first literary biographer. Sprinkled throughout the novel are nuggets of wisdom ( such as the passage quoted above) that Hanif Kureishi has probably gleaned from his lectures and notes on creative writing. It is as if Hanif Kureishi has on more than one occasion uttered these words to his students. It rings true. I would not be surprised if he is invited to deliver the equivalent of the Norton Lectures at Harvard or the lectures on poetics at the Franklin University. Those are really well written, thought provoking and fabulous lectures that novelists of note are invited to deliver for a semester.

While reading this novel, it was difficult to not recall Andrew O’Hagan’s wonderful longread , “Ghosting” in London Review of Books ( LRB Vol. 36 No. 5 · 6 March 2014; pages 5-26 | 26468 words. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36 /n05/andrew-ohagan/ghosting) It is about his attempts at ghostwriting a biography of Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder. It was commissioned by Jamie Byng of Canongate. Unfortunately the commissioned biography was never published since Assange did not allow it to be. A response to this was published by the Guardian in early March written by Colin Robinson, “In Defence of Julian Assange”. ( the Guardian,Thursday 6 March 2014 15.24 GMT. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/06/julian-assange-publisher-defence-wikileaks )

It is probably pure coincidence that The Last Word and these long reads about the ill-fated Assange biography were published at about the same time. It makes for a surreal experience to read a novel and reportage echoing each other. A fine dividing line ( if it exists!) between reality and fiction. Hanif Kureishi’s novel The Last Word is recommended reading, especially for aspiring writers.

Hanif Kureishi The Last Word Faber and Faber, London, 2014. Hb. pp. 286. £18.99

3 May 2014 <

“Mirrored Mind” Vikram Chandra

“Mirrored Mind” Vikram Chandra

Vikram Chandra, Mirrored Minds

Sometimes the sheer vastness of what I want to put into fiction terrifies me. I survive by not thinking about the whole. I write my 400 words this day, and then another 400 words the next. I find my way by feeling, by intuition, by the sounds of the words, by the characters’ passions, by trekking on to the next day, the next horizon, and then the next. I pay attention to the track of narratives I leave behind, and I look for openings ahead. I make shapes and I find shapes. I retrace my steps, go over draft after draft, trying to find something, I am not sure what until I begin to see it. I am trying to make an object, a model, a receptacle. What I am making will not be complete until I let go of it.  (p.197)

It must be lonely being a writer,’ people have said to me. But I like being alone, at least for a goodly sized portion of every day. And working by myself on other things — programming for instance — is never painful. There is something else altogether that is peculiar to the process of fiction writing, a grinding discomfort that emerges from the act itself: it feels, to me, like a split in the self, a fracture that leaves raw edges exposed.  ( p. 213)

It is always a pleasure to read/hear writers talk about their craft. Programmer and successful author like Vikram Chandra spends a couple of chapters — “Learning to Write” and ” The Language of Literature” — in his latest book, Mirrored Mind: My Life in Letters and Code. dwelling upon he found his way into writing fiction. He mulls over the similarities and complexities of language, a skill that is inherent to both professions and how one informs the other, while being so different as well. Two essays worth reading especially by new authors curious about the craft of writing.

Vikram Chandra Mirrored Mind: My Life in Letters and Code Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 260 Rs. 499

 

David Davidar, Publisher, Aleph on “what makes a writer successful?”

David Davidar, Publisher, Aleph on “what makes a writer successful?”

This is an extract from an interview published in the Shillong Times, 20 Oct 2013.  Sambha Lamarr, creative director of Shillong CALM Festival, speaks to publisher-novelist David Davidar about all things literary. Read more at http://www.theshillongtimes.com/2013/10/20/ne-writers-need-to-hone-their-craft/#kKAv2fskFvAAJ5Zi.99 ) 

David Davidar

I think what is essential for writers is that it is critically important that you must always measure your own books against the greatest books ever written in your genre whether it is fiction or non-fiction. I have found in the course of my career, and I speak from the standpoint of someone who has published hundreds of books, that the greatest shortcoming I’ve found in a lot of the manuscripts I receive (and subsequently reject) is that writers have simply not invested enough time and effort in trying to make their manuscripts the best they can possibly be. They have either not revised enough or they have given up halfway or they have not researched enough or they leave it up to the editor to fix all the flaws in their work or they have not taken the trouble to compare their manuscript with the best books available in that particular subject area or they have not read enough on the subject or they think they are geniuses who are not in need of any training whatsoever as a result of which their efforts are usually pitiful. And so the only advice I can give is do your homework, figure out what you want to write about, work out your structure and your plot carefully in advance of beginning to write your book and then once you’ve written your book revise it two or three times, send it out to people whose judgement you trust and then revise it again once you’ve received the brutally honest comments of your referees and only then send it to a potential publisher.

26 Oct 2013

Khushwant Singh. Two books. Two publishing houses – Penguin and Aleph

Khushwant Singh. Two books. Two publishing houses – Penguin and Aleph


Khushwant Singh. Two books published in quick succession by two publishing houses. Both books have been written when, “according to traditional Hindu belief, in the fourth and final stage of life, sanyaas. …At ninety-eight, I count myself lucky that I still enjoy my single malt whiskey at seven every evening. I relish tasty food, and look forward to hearing the latest gossip and scandal. I tell people who drop in to see me, ‘If you have nothing nice to say about anyone, come and sit beside me.’ I retain my curiosity about the world around me; I enjoy the company of beautiful women; I take joy in poetry and literature, and in watching nature… I have slowed down considerably in the past year. I tire more easily, and have grown quite deaf. These days I often remove my hearing aid…and I find myself relishing the silence that deafness brings. As I sit enveloped in silence, I often look on my life, thinking about what has enriched it…My life has had its ups and downs, but I’ve lived it fully, and I think I have learnt its lessons.”

Khushwantnama is a collection of reflections. Honest, Straightforward. Crisp. Acerbic. Tongue-in-cheek. Ruthless. The essays range from being a “Dilliwala”, the importance of Gandhi, what religion means to Khushwant Singh ( ” It is not God who created us, but we who created God. I am an agnostic. However, one does not have to believe in God to concede that prayer has power.”), on writing, on watching nature, on poetry especially Urdu poetry and Ghalib. The essays I have read over and over again have to be on the business of writing, what it takes to be a writer and dealing with death.

In his reflections upon writing and dealing with publishers, Khushwant Singh does not mince any words. Having written many books, his experience was that he never had any trouble finding a good publisher. But now “the whole business resembles a whorehouse. Publishers can be compared to brothel keepers; literary agents to bharooahs (pimps) who find eligible girls and fix rates of payment; writers can be likened to women in the profession. Newcomers are naya maal ( virgins) who draw the biggest fees for being deflowered. Advance royalties being these days run up to Rs 50 lakh, sometimes even before a word of the projected work has been written. Advances offered to authors in India are often higher than those offered in America or England or in any other European country. But they are offered only for works in English, not for works in our regional languages.”

And his advice on what it takes to be a writer. “Along with hard work, read whatever you can– whether it’s the classics or fairy tales or even nonsense verse. Reading will make you capable of distinguishing between bad and good writing. There is no substitute for reading. This is also the only thing that expands your vocabulary.”

This has to be read along with The Freethinker’s Prayer Book a collection of quotes that he gathered from his reading and many visitors. He maintained many notebooks. The best of these have been published in this beautiful volume. Quite literally from the cover onwards with its Sanjhi artwork of the tree of life to the text within. It is a book that you will want to dip in often.

In Swahili there is a saying that when a person dies it is equivalent to the loss of a library. These books exemplify that it certainly holds true for Khushwant Singh. I have enjoyed reading these books and keep them on my writing desk. Buy these books as companion volumes.

Khushwant Singh Khushwantnama: The Lessons of my Life Viking, Penguin, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 190 Rs. 399

Khushwant Singh The Freethinker’s Prayer Book and some words to live by Aleph, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 190. Rs. 495